Gated Living, Reflection #1

Gated Living, Reflections #1

At the moment, I cannot stomach begging. Every corner I walk past in this
Eastern Cape city – on my way to work, buying groceries, drinking a latte, thinking about what next to write- I am confronted with uninvited outstretched palms, spread open like hopeful butterfly wings. Sometimes it’s only one open hand, while the other hand performs a rubbing of a hungry tummy. A well-worn line accompanies the pleading hands, “Eh, sisi, munny for bred. Isonka, R2.”

I flash back to the dusty streets of
Cusco, Peru. “Mamazita,” implore red-dust coated Quechua women sitting in doorways and on steps. Dust-coated children propped up in the folds of their ‘traditional’ Andean skirts. “Mamazita, gringa, moneda por favore,” they implore with palms outstretched. My well worn mutter then, as it is now, is that somebody ought to clean it up, fix it – the begging that is bothering me.

Why are there so many people begging on the streets, from the Makana province (SA) to Cusco in
Peru? I mean to ask- not any of those with outstretched hands, but a friend who is a sociologist specialising in ‘poverty studies’, basic income and welfare state programmes. Is begging a way of life, an economic ‘choice’, or a community and/or government failing? Could the problem be me, my constructed world? My ‘good consumer-citizen view’ argues, I have paid good, hard-earned money (taxes) not to have begging around accosting me. Just as I buy my groceries to keep offensive hunger at bay, I have bought the privilege of walking along streets that are not lined with other people’s demands. Even if begging is a social reality, I have paid to only look at the neat verges and the trees. I have bought my urban landscape, even if it means imposing certain sensibilities onto others.

I was about to cross the road my way to lunch with a friend. I recognised the person next to me. It was the toothless Mama who usually sits down near my ankles in the cracked concrete outside the estate agent. I tapped her on the shoulder, “Molo, Mama.” She smiled in recognition, “Ndilambile (I am hungry), R2 for bread.”

I sigh the weary sigh of being able to go to work, buy groceries, drink lattes, write for a blog. “You must ask for the government pension – R700 a month,” I begin to explain, but my latte words have to be translated. She calls over a young man in a blue overall, spattered with white-paint and wearing a hard-hat.

He continues: (She says) I am paying taxes to the government. The taxes are going to money for you. He adds, you must go with your id document to apply. I smile smugly at having bestowed the good news. Ah yes, a nice organised bureaucratic solution for my unease with unwanted intrusions of other people’s lived reality. I have made a stand for gated-living, through paperwork and grant applications.

But the discussion continues. “She asks,” says our interpreter, “will you go with her.”

“Well,” I stall for a moment and frantically press my imaginary remote for the gate behind which there is a salary, groceries, lattes and the uninvolved solution of taxation. I cannot stomach begging, and yet I balk at the request to do something about the situation. I didn’t ask to consider sitting in a queue for who knows how many hours, giving up a day of work, actually getting involved – perhaps even learning the Mama’s name. And if I did help one person get an old age grant from the government, am I really helping the situation? How do I know the Mama won’t be back in the cracked concrete? “I’m very busy for the next two weeks, but perhaps after…”

Instead I write a blog-post, and prepare myself for tomorrow: “Eh, sisi, R2 for bred. Ndilambile.”